The Rapidian

The End of Country, Dispatches from the Frack Zone

Author Seamus McGraw discusses The End of Country and the conversation he hopes it inspires.

Seamus McGraw at PCCI June 14, 7pm

Seamus McGraw, author of The End of Country, Dispatches from the Frack Zone (Random House, 2011)

Seamus McGraw is an investigative journalist and the recipient of a Freedom of Information Award from the Associated Press Managing Editors.  

The End of Country, Dispatches from the Frack Zone (McGraw's first book) is the unsettling story of the conflict in Susquehanna County, Pa. that pits petrodollar billionaires against the locals who want to get their fair share of the windfall and try to also protect their values and way of life.

Michigan Land Air Water Defense (MLAWD) a Barry and Allegan County group hoping to protect state forests and recreation areas from oil and gas development and the water extraction that comes with it, hosted McGraw's speaking engagement.
 

 

 

My interview with Seamus McGraw begins with a question he poses: What do you know about fracking?

I tell him. First, they drill vertically to a target layer. I name a few of the deep shale layers being fracked in Michigan – the Utica-Collingwood, the A-1 Carbonate – which they then drill through horizontally. But he stops me.

“Not even that much detail.”

So I get to the point: “After the drilling is done, the frack crew comes in and pumps millions of gallons of water with added chemicals and silica sand to fracture the rock.”

“Okay. Stop right there,” he says.

“Everyone who is reasonably educated about the process describes it that way, to fracture the rock. But in reality, the process involves pumping water and sand and chemicals down into the well at ridiculously high pressures to exploit existing fractures in the rock.”

He composes the next sentence carefully. “And I would argue that what is happening deep underground is what is happening on the surface.”

When we first discussed the book, I expressed my admiration for the way he lets each character appear on the page. He gets out of the way and presents everyone – the landmen (and the occasional woman), the drillers, citizens-turned-watchdogs, the sometimes desperate, sometimes ambivalent land owners who lease their land – with respect and compassion.

The result: A book that reads with a deep sense of empathy and complexity, driven by McGraw’s refusal to paint any simple pictures of how the nation came to understand the risks of fracking when drinking water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania, just over the hill from McGraw’s home, became contaminated with methane.

“Anyone who tells you that this process doesn’t carry real, achievable benefits – most of them utterly unrealized at this point – is either uninformed or purposefully misinforming you,” he says.

“On the other hand, anyone who tells you that it can be done safely is not paying attention to the substantial, profound, maybe even existential risks and complications.”

Even after Dimock taught everyone important lessons, the central questions in the book are still up for conversation. As McGraw writes, shortly after his family decides to lease their land in the face of “A Thousand Reasons Not To” (the chapter title):

 

Already there were nagging questions…We could discuss the risks posed to the environment by the drilling, we could debate the question of whether we as a family, as a community – hell, whether we as a nation were up to the challenge of policing such a sweeping and monumental operation. […] …it was already becoming clear that the federal agencies charged with overseeing the gas industry had all but abdicated their responsibilities, and there were grave questions about whether the state had the will or the means to take up the slack.

       

But the truth was that even in those matters, the question of money and the effect it might have on our character underpinned it all. And that was too frightening to discuss. (199-200)

 

McGraw addresses the eternal conflicts of leasing. “I still feel hinky about the money,” he says, and, in journalistic terms, he makes full disclosure.

“One of the reasons I can make this trip to speak for Michigan Land Air Water Defense [McGraw spoke at the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings in June], one of the reasons I can have this conversation, is because industry organizations such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists pays my full speaking fee.”

That, and the fact that the two wells now on his family’s property are producing and creating a steady income that his writing career has never offered.

McGraw prefers to think of The End of Country, not as the end of his writing process, but the start of a longer, wider conversation. In the process of meeting the people of Dimock who people the book, in the aftermath of our country’s struggle with conflicting messages about the economy, about natural gas as a green or bridge fuel, about regulations designed to make fracking “safe,” he worries that the real conversation we all need to have is stalling out.

“We need to get off the opposite ends of the spectrum and hold ourselves and the industry accountable.”

Like the characters in his book, finding a way to deal with our immediate and future energy needs while addressing immediate and future climate issues, “is going to take a lot of character from all of us.”

“We’ve just experienced our second 500-year storm in the last five years,” he says. “We have precious little time and precious few resources.”

“And I keep hearing the clock ticking.” The clock of a climate that is “riding high on the shoulders of a lot of damage we’ve done for a long, long time.”

Though McGraw is not about to tell the audiences he speaks with what is the “right” thing to do, he does offer “in a state like Michigan or Pennsylvania, we need to turn around and create regulation that operates on the principle that the industry operates on greed.” Corporations are not people, he argues, they’re machines, and they’re in business to make money.

We need to exploit and speed up changes that are still too slow in coming, changes in formerly rock-solid positions that he sees geologists, drillers, regulators and environmentalists experiencing as a search-savvy public exerts more and more pressure.

“We need to develop a structure that allows [the industry] to make money doing what we want them to do, but then penalizes them for doing what we don’t want them to do.”

In short, we need to stop ignoring or denying what really matters.

The climate clock is ticking as loudly as the drill bit when it screeches and grinds into stone, and one of the ways we might approach this stage in our fossil fuel development is to make it what it really needs to be: “a really wide, really short bridge” to a carbon reduced future.

 

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